The Urban School’s hidden culture of language learning


Sophia Vahanvaty, Staff Writer

At the Urban School, a hidden culture of language learning thrives outside of Urban’s foreign language program. Since over 45 percent of Bay Area residents primarily speak a language other than English at home, it’s no wonder that Urban students speak a wide array of languages outside of school and at home, including Hindi, Vietnamese, Russian and Arabic. In an Urban Legend survey of 56 Urban students on March 1, 2017, 25 percent of students said they study another language outside of school and 18 percent speak a language other than English at home.

But the Bay Area is special in this regard. Overall, the United States lags behind other countries in bilingualism. estimates that about 60 percent of the world population is fluent in more than one language, while only about 15-20 percent of Americans are bilingual. According to the BBC, the benefits of multilingualism include “a superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus, better mental flexibility and multitasking skills” and even “protect against dementia.” But despite the benefits, there are a number of reasons why bilingualism isn’t more prevalent. According to the same BBC article, “being so bound up with identity, language is also deeply political. [In the 19th century] it was regarded as disloyal to speak anything other than the one national language. This perhaps contributed to the widely held opinion…that bringing up children to be bilingual was harmful to their health and society more generally.”

California’s Proposition 227 is prime evidence of the wariness around multilingualism. The proposition, which passed in 1998, greatly limited the amount of time that English as a second language learners spent in bilingual settings. This came out of a belief that students learning two languages would never reach a high level of proficiency in either one.

This has been proven false by many studies, including statistics by the College Entrance Exam Board who reported that more years of foreign language study is correlated with higher verbal SAT scores. Only this past year on November 8 did California pass Proposition 58, which expanded bilingual education in public schools.

Urban students recounted many reasons why they believe learning languages is beneficial. “My first Chinese teacher told me, “‘[while] foreign language is not a career, it’s a tool that’s going to make you most competitive [at] whatever you want to do, ’” said Skylar Baker, (‘18), who studies Mandarin, Spanish and Dutch. He went on to say, “I think that really stuck with me because I’m really interested in science and engineering and my opportunities will be so much larger if I have access to populations like China, Spanish-speaking countries, and Europe. My opportunities become so much wider and also just having a broader cultural understanding…that’s a quality that really sets you up for success.”

Ben Nguyen, (‘20), whose first language was Vietnamese, appreciates language for more social reasons: “[I like] talking with my sister when we’re in a group of people and having that space to communicate with her and not having anyone else knowing,” he said.

Furthermore, Nguyen and Baker explained how you can learn about the culture from learning the language. Nguyen said, “Language is a huge part of culture. There’s a lot of history that you can learn from the language. The French colonized Vietnam so there are some French words in Vietnamese but it’s still considered Vietnamese because it’s a part of the history of Vietnam.”

Baker said, “A lot of [Chinese] culture is literally seen in the characters. A lot of the way you pronounce things is based on the history. The way that the characters are written have certain pictures that depict an old way of thinking and I think just knowing the language and the way people communicate with each other and a lack of certain things that English has, really makes you understand the Chinese culture a lot better.”

The cross-cultural understanding is augmented by one’s ability to connect and relate to people whose native language one is learning. Billy Krassner (’20), who studies Russian, said, “The greatest benefit is going to someone who is a native speaker and seeing the surprise and confusion when you start speaking the language.”

Baker asserted that learning someone’s native language allows you to interact with their true self because “when I have to translate into Chinese to speak to someone, I know they are not getting my whole self and I can only imagine what it’s like for people around the world who are expected to speak English and communicate their own culture through English … if more people spoke other languages, there would be more communication,” he said.

But other students weren’t as enthused by language learning. Nishad Karulkar (’20), who speaks Hindi and Marathi (a regional Indian dialect) said, “I don’t love languages. I see how it’s useful…and it’s good to be able to learn it. [But] English is such a powerful language and I find it more useful to just know that.”

Hannah Platter (‘18), who studies Spanish at Urban, said, “I think the global culture and historical relevance combined with language is much more interesting than the current way of teaching…having it all be memorization.”

Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed this sentiment and said, “If we choose not to take it we would have more time to focus on something we actually see ourselves pursuing in the future.”

For those who do love languages, Baker has some good news. He said, “Every language gets easier [after] learning a second one. When you learn a third language, it [even] improves your 2nd language quite a bit…[After having studied multiple languages] I find patterns and connections to other languages and once you learn how to learn a language, you can learn the next even quicker and so on and so forth.”

This love for language among Urban students also manifests itself in a desire for greater language offerings in Urban’s curriculum. Over 55 percent of survey respondents indicated a desire for German and Italian to be offered and over 40 percent wanted Arabic, Latin, and Japanese course offerings. Baker said, “there should be more options at Urban. I think there should also be German and other languages that are very critical to learn in the world. I think we should definitely have an Arabic program. I’m surprised that we don’t.”

“I feel like the range is kind of limited … I think Arabic should be taught because Arabic is used a lot,” said Krassner. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of US translators and interpreters will have risen by 29 percent from 2014 to 2024, a far higher rate than most other jobs, and that is not even including bilingual job listings in business, government, and nonprofit sectors. Given the growing need for Arabic, Hindi, and Russian (among other languages) speakers in US diplomatic and corporate positions, it will be interesting to see how Urban responds to these needs.

Regardless of what language is being taught, the benefits of bilingualism are vast. Baker said, “It breaks down barriers that I wouldn’t be able to break down if I didn’t have the language [skills] that I have.”